Leslie Odom Jr. has had a pretty good year and a half.
Back in January 2015, the East Oak Lane actor and singer debuted as Aaron Burr in Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's megahit hip-hop Broadway musical and cultural phenomenon.
"I'm the damn fool that shot him!" Odom-as-Burr sings eight times a week in the showstopping opening number, "Alexander Hamilton," at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, introducing Burr's fateful pas de deux with the play's titular "Ten Dollar Founding Father."
This month, Odom released his first solo album, an impressively crafted collection of jazz and show tunes called simply Leslie Odom Jr. (S-Curve) ***. A few days later, he beat out Miranda to win a best actor in a musical Tony award, one of 11 trophies taken home by Hamilton, whose soundtrack album, produced by the Roots, won a Grammy earlier this year.
On July Fourth, Odom will host and perform at the Wawa Welcome America! free concert on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The pre-fireworks show will also feature retro-soul man Leon Bridges, Philadelphia rapper Yazz the Greatest, and acts from the Gamble and Huff golden age of Philly soul. (The weeklong Welcome America! festival kicks off Monday with free events around town; details at welcomeamerica.com.)
The 34-year-old Odom, who landed a part in Rent on Broadway when he was 17 and has had featured TV roles in Smash and Law and Order: SVU, talked on the phone recently from Manhattan, where he lives with his wife, actress Nicolette Robinson.
Congratulations on the Tony. How does it feel?
Thank you. It hasn't really sunk in. She's out being engraved. I haven't had time to bond with her yet. We had a wild 48 hours together. They give it to you without your name on it. You hold it and take pictures with it, and then they take it away.
You beat out Lin-Manuel Miranda for best actor. Burr takes down Hamilton again! Was there friendly competition?
We were rooting for team Hamilton. And if it wasn't me, I was rooting for Lin because his performance is so great. And half of my performance I get from looking into his eyes. Obviously, I'm overjoyed to have been chosen, but I would have been happy either way.
So your album is called "Leslie Odom Jr.," and the opening track is "Look for the Silver Lining," a Jerome Kern-B.G. DeSylva song from 1919. Was that a purposeful title for you to start the album with?
It was. I wanted to make an album that was hopeful and encouraging and inspiring. That was the goal. Also, I'm a balladeer. So if I'm not careful, I'll sing slow songs all night long. And that was one of our up-tempo numbers.
Does it express the Leslie Odom Jr. outlook on life?
It does. There was something about the message of it. And also the percussion in it - there's something African there. It felt like a way to open it, to say, "We're here. I'm throwing my hat in the ring."
Where does the positivity come from?
From my parents. My faith. I grew up in the Canaan Baptist Church. I've been fortunate in my life. It hasn't been easy, but there has been a focus on the positive, and it has reverberated. Eventually, the outlook mirrors itself back to you in the friends you have, in the partner that you choose.
What did your parents do?
My dad was always in sales. My mom had a heart for the ages. Worked in recreation, doing rehabilitation in nursing homes. Very nice, practical folks who were very proud of me, but had no inclination toward the stage in any way.
What lit the fire for the arts?
As a kid, that was the place I found validation. That's why I'm so grateful to my teachers and mentors, coming up in Philadelphia. I was a kid getting into a fair amount of trouble, and they said, "Here's where you should focus."
It was Mrs. Frances Turner at Masterman, my fifth-grade history teacher. And Marc Johnson, the jazz band instructor. And Dr. Gloria Goode, who ran the choir. I went to West Philly for ballet class, and North Philly for Freedom Theatre. I love that about Philadelphia. I was not walled in my neighborhood at all. From fifth grade, I was getting on the train or getting on the bus to go to Center City for school. The cord was cut when I was very young.
You were moving through the world.
Yes. That made it so I wasn't scared when I came to New York at 17 to do Rent on Broadway. When I think back on it now, it must have been really hard on my parents emotionally to sort of let me go off. But they did. They trusted.
What's it mean to come back to Philadelphia and host the Independence Day celebration?
I'm as excited about it as I've been about anything all year. I said yes immediately. It's a chance to be home again. It's a chance to see people I care about and say thanks. And then I want to bring some joy and positivity and celebration to what already is designed to be a really fun day.
How early did you know "Hamilton" was something special?
I knew right away. I knew how I felt about it. What I didn't know is how other people were going to feel about it. But you never have that piece of information. All you can do is walk toward things that you love, and try - and it's not easy in this business - try to put out things that you believe in.
Burr has been historically regarded as a scoundrel and a villain. Do you think your portrayal has changed that perception?
I do. What Lin has done, I think he's changed the perception of all these guys. He's made them just as petty and brash and brilliant and sex-obsessed as we are. He's made them flesh and blood, so we can understand them. So we can empathize with them.
What role does having a cast made up of people of color play in that?
I can't answer that question for everybody. But for me, it has watered my seeds of empathy. So much gets made of our differences in this country. So much gets made of the ways in which we are not alike. And there are so many ways in that we are the same. There is so much common ground in the things that are important to us, the things that we care about.
You're coming from a hip-hop musical, and putting out a jazz album. That might confuse people.
For me, Hamilton was the stretch. In no way have I ever been an MC. I wasn't that kid who was writing down rhymes in my composition book. So it was up to me to find the Jay Z, to find the Tupac, to find the Kendrick Lamar within me.
Are you closing the door on "Hamilton" for good?
No way. I love this part. I love this show. I love the kind of people the show attracts, onstage and off. I would come back to the show anytime they would have me.
You were in "Rent," you've done television, you've been in a giant hit hip-hop musical, and now you've put out a jazz album. What kind of career do you want to have?
When we [Odom and producer Joseph Abate] started making this album three years ago, we crowdsourced it to raise money. We said we were going to record an album of the kind of music Nat King Cole would make today.
For a long time, you have to use other people's accomplishments as examples of where you want to go. But at a certain point, you just get to be you. And I feel like I'm really close to finally being in a place where the things that I've accomplished feel singular and unique to me. The album is called Leslie Odom Jr. The idea is to find out, "Who is that guy?" and keep being true to that.